The Trial of Lizzie Borden is a story that will play with your emotions
and force you to reconsider what you deem moral. Written by Calgary director
and playwright Donna Tunney, The Trial of Lizzie Borden focuses on the 1892
trial of Lizbeth Andrew Borden, how it was sensationalized, and how the
community reacted to Lizzie’s acquittal.
The first part of the play is based on actual trial transcripts and newspaper
excerpts. We meet all of the historic witnesses, as introduced by Lizzie,
from her dressmaker to the engineer who measured the house and areas of
the crime scenes. Much of the testimony contradicts the possibility of the
events that could have proved Lizzie was the murderer.
Before intermission, I was convinced that Lizzie was innocent. The presumed
"gymnastics" Lizzie would have needed to do to commit and cover
up the murders could never have been done in 15 minutes.
Actor Carrie Schiffler plays Lizzie Borden as a cold but intriguing.
character. Her face is often emotionless, yet underneath her stone exterior
you can detect a certain internal sensitivity. Her apparent lack of emotion
toward the murders became one of the principal arguments against her-she
didn’t cry after the murders of her father and step-mother. As the story
develops, it becomes easy to see why Lizzie Borden held resentment toward
her stepmother and father, even after their deaths.
The other stage actors play several other characters-a requirement,
since there were many witnesses in the Borden trial, but only four actors
are cast in the play. The transitions are brilliant; actor Catherine Myles,
for example, plays Emma Borden, Maggie the maid, a newsie and the chief
police officer, all at the switch of a coat or hat. Although the transition
itself is not overly detectable, it is very believable. Similarly, actor
Virgil Riley smoothly and consistently changes from the bumbling doctor,
to a female dressmaker, and to the despicable father Andrew Borden. And
the actor known as GAYL’s, who plays several characters as well, plays the
lovable family friend Adelle, as well as the boorish stepmother, Abbie Borden.
The stage set in the arena theatre is a bit small, but does utilize the
facility to its full extent, with scenes occurring at all levels, including
the opportunity for actors to interact with the audience.
The most brilliant part of Tunney’s work is that she incorporates excerpts
of the actual trial with a speculation of what may have driven Lizzie to
kill Andrew and Abbie Borden. This speculation may indeed never be proven
to the real trial, but brings a new light on what might have been the killer’s
motives. Tunney interweaves the 1892 murder with a case that may have been
grown from one of the most disturbing secrets a family member could carry-allegations
of sexual abuse.
For anyone who knows someone who has been abused, The Trial of Lizzie
Borden becomes a particularly emotional drama. Tunney’s story plays with
circumstances that successfully make the 18th century anti-heroine a heroine.
I challenge any audience to condemn Lizzie’s character for her actions after
seeing this play.
The Trial of Lizzie Borden runs until Jan. 23, Tues.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m.
at the Arena Theatre (310 17 Ave. s.w. next to Victoria’s Restaurant).